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2 women named to Navy's Blue Angels squadron

BALTIMORE — When your father, two uncles and both grandfathers served as pilots, your career seems destined to take flight.

Marine Capt. Katie Higgins not only followed in the footsteps of her family members, but this week she was named to the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, also known as the Blue Angels.

With her first show flight sometime next spring, the 2008 Naval Academy graduate said she could become first woman to perform in Blue Angels history.

Blue Angels public affairs officer Lt. j.g. Amber Lynn Daniel said that Higgins’ addition to the team, along with Marine Capt. Corrie Mays, 34, of Marstons Mills, Mass., marks the first time in Blue Angels history that two female Marine Corps officers have been selected to serve on the team at the same time.

Both Higgins and Mays will pilot the Blue Angels’ C-130 Hercules cargo plane known as “Fat Albert,” which rumbles low and slow over the crowds at air shows and can take off at a 45-degree angle using rocket boosters, a maneuver used in combat zones.

The Blue Angels are considered one of the most elite outfits in U.S. military aviation, and the addition of a female pilot to its ranks is both historically significant and no small feat, said Robert Thomas, the curator of the National Military History Center in Indiana.

“To get added to that group is extraordinary, seeing how far the military has come,” he said.

While women flew aid missions in World War II, no women flew in combat until Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Thomas said.

Whoever takes to the air first will break through a gender barrier, though neither is the first female member of the Blue Angels. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Amy Redditt Tomlinson became the first woman to wear a Blue Angels number when she became Blue Angel No. 8 in 2010. But Tomlinson never performed, serving as an events coordinator and navigator.

Both Higgins and Mays will pilot the Blue Angels’ C-130 Hercules cargo plane known as “Fat Albert,” which rumbles low and slow over the crowds at air shows and can take off at a 45-degree angle using rocket boosters, a maneuver used in combat zones.

Marta Martin, a Navy counselor who runs a history blog on women in the service, said Higgins flying with the Blue Angels is “a huge deal.”

Higgins joins a growing list of high-achieving women, such as the Navy’s first female full admiral, Michelle J. Howard, who serve as an inspiration to others in the service, Martin said.

“It allows people to see there are so many different options for them,” Martin said. “With the Blue Angels, it is very difficult to even work for their team, to be appointed to assist them. Just the fact that there’s a female, that’s great. It’s a good feeling to know there are women out there that are role models, who are not just staying in what’s a comfortable role.”

Higgins said she dreamed of becoming a pilot when she was growing up, but her ambition wasn’t truly formed until her second-class midshipman year at the Naval Academy, when she boarded her first noncommercial aircraft and took the controls.

“It was really intimidating but one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” said Higgins, 27. “I could say I had a goal to do it because of my dad, but until I did it I didn’t know. It was a really cool experience.”

Higgins, currently assigned to Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 252 at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., will become part of a unit that will serve three years with the Blue Angels squadron.

She will report in September for training but will not fly with the team until well after its Star-Spangled Spectacular show in Baltimore on Sept. 13-14. When the Blue Angels relocate from Florida to California in January, she will begin demonstration training. By March, she will suit up officially for the squadron.

According to the Blue Angels website, the demonstration squadron was created in 1946 and has performed flight demonstrations for more than 480 million people as part of its community outreach efforts. Pilots such as Higgins must have at least 1,200 flight hours before taking controls of the C-130, built by Lockheed Martin.

In addition to being flown in the shows, the C-130, which travels at speeds of up to 320 knots — 368 mph — carries equipment and personnel between the shows by the acrobatic squadron.

“Honestly, I was in shock,” said Higgins of learning she had made the Blue Angels. “It was something I had dreamed about for a while, and to have it come into fruition was amazing.”

Others selected to the Blue Angels squadron include Navy Cmdr. Bob Flynn, 45, a Navy graduate who was named the executive officer, a position newly created in response to the Navy investigation into misconduct on the squadron.

In May it was reported that former team commander Capt. Gregory McWherter and many in his command “openly engaged in sexual harassment and other inappropriate behaviors, which he failed to correct.”

Achievements such as Higgins’ stand out even more amid the sexual harassment allegations that have dogged the Navy, Martin said.

“Women are faced every day with all sorts of challenges,” she said. “To show men that we can do this; we don’t have to be labeled; we’re capable of standing on our own — if you go into the military and you do things right, you can excel — that’s the message.”

“It’s an extraordinary opportunity for us women,” Martin said.

Another new Blue Angels member with local ties is Navy Lt. Gregory Bollinger Jr., 31, a University of Maryland, University College graduate, who was appointed as a supply officer.

Higgins said she was born in Jacksonville, Fla., and her family moved around a lot as she grew up. She attended high schools in Japan and Northern Virginia before heading to the Naval Academy. Her parents now live in Severna Park, Md. Her husband, Ian Higgins, is also a Naval Academy graduate and pilot.

Long before her stint in Annapolis, Higgins said, she remembers watching the Blue Angels at air shows during early childhood while her family lived on Naval Air Station Lemoore in California.

“Being able to see them, probably since I was 5 years old, was really cool,” Higgins said. “But I could not understand it fully until after I became a midshipman at the academy. That’s when it became a desire built in me to go for it.”

Bill Johnson, Katie’s father and 1981 Naval Academy graduate, said the pilot bloodlines stretch back to his father, a World War II B-24 pilot. Johnson and his brother Fred flew F/A-18 Hornet and A-7 Corsair jets, while younger brother Jeff flew A-10 Warthogs and F-4 Phantoms.

“We have an awful lot in common to talk about, great stories to discuss,” Johnson said. “When you talk about the process you go through in getting your wings and qualifications as a pilot, you have the same achievements. It’s one of the hardest things to do in life, and it has brought us together because we’ve all accomplished something that was really difficult.”

Higgins said she vividly recalls Blue Angels performing a flyover during her graduation exercises in 2008 and added, “for me it’s coming full circle; now I can have an impact on graduates.”
 

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